Public health officials in southwestern Ontario have put a three-week pause on the arrival of any temporary foreign workers to the Windsor-Essex region.
Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, acting medical officer of health for the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit (WECHU), on Wednesday issued a new letter of instruction to business owners or operators who employ temporary foreign workers.
According to the letter, they must immediately cancel, suspend or postpone the arrivals of temporary foreign workers to the region in southwestern Ontario between Jan. 13 and Feb. 1.
“We’re in a public health emergency in Windsor-Essex and the burden of COVID-19 among the migrant farm worker community at this time exceeds the community resources,” Nesathurai said during a media briefing Wednesday.
Nesathurai said 275 migrant workers are self-isolating in the region. They have either tested positive for COVID-19 or are a close contact of a confirmed case. But officials are running out of space to care for people.
A federally funded Isolation and Recovery Centre in Windsor was empty a week ago, said Nesathurai, but it is now full, along with three other hotel sites housing individuals who are isolating.
The public health unit is concerned there are not enough resources to monitor workers in isolation.
“The issue here is we have already exhausted our ability to self-isolate people,” said Nesathurai. “So that means if people get infected today and they expose other people, we have already exhausted the self-isolation hotel.”
Pending further instructions, agricultural operators may resume bringing temporary foreign workers into the region on Feb. 2.
Thousands of workers are expected to travel to the Windsor-Essex region for seasonal farm work.
WECHU estimates about 2,000 workers had already arrived. Some 8,000 to 10,000 are expected during peak growing season.
Nesathurai said the significant number of outbreaks in agricultural settings, and a limited capacity of the overall local health-care system, also contributed to the decision to pause worker arrivals.
Eight agricultural business and about 15 bunkhouses where workers stay are being monitored for COVID-19 outbreaks, officials said Wednesday,
The federal government oversees the program, which facilitates the entry of seasonal workers and provides guidelines for housing accommodations.
Last month, Canada’s auditor general issued a scathing report that said federal inspectors ignored pandemic regulations for temporary foreign workers and failed to keep tabs on how well employers were protecting their staff.
“What we’re seeing is yet again government and employers are blaming migrant workers for COVID-19 outbreaks, when the last few years have proven their living and working conditions are the real cause,” said Syed Hussan, executive director of the advocacy group Migrant Workers Alliance for Change.
“The federal government, the province and the region has had two years to prepare. This would be the third.”
Hussan has advocated throughout the pandemic that low-income workers, including migrant farm workers, need income supports to access safer housing.
He said pausing the arrival of the workers is putting the blame on them, and it should be “no surprise” to all levels of government that people need a place to isolate and recover if they are sick.
No space for isolation
In December, the City of Windsor was looking for the federal government to commit to further funding the Windsor-Essex Isolation and Recovery Centre for agri-farm workers. The funding is set to end March 31.
Mayor Drew Dilkens said at that time that any new workers to the region would isolate at the centre upon arrival in Essex County.
Temporary workers were expected to begin arriving in Windsor-Essex in mid-January for the coming agricultural season..
As of Wednesday, there was no indication the government would continue to fund the isolation and recovery centre. WECHU officials say they have engaged elected officials at every level about the current need to isolate migrant workers.
WECHU said failing to adhere to the isolation requirement could result in fines starting at $750 for individuals to up to $10 million for corporations, with possible imprisonment.
At least 4 workers have died in Ontario
In earlier stages of the pandemic, Windsor-Essex saw a disproportionate amount of COVID-19 cases among migrant farm workers.
At least four temporary foreign workers have died in Ontario since the beginning of the pandemic. They include: